Headphones. A good pair of headphones. And an external mouse. And maybe a door.
Whether your family is starting school in person or remotely, everyone should prepare for long-distance learning this fall. I recently asked a bunch of parents what’s the one thing they knew in June that they wish they knew in March, when most of our nation’s children were sent home for school. Here are their answers. My goal is to make last-minute back-to-school tech shopping a little easier.
A new laptop is the obvious answer, but I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking for something small and hopefully inexpensive that would make a real difference. And I was surprised by the resounding answer: Good headphones. Mind you, those headphones are as much for the parents as they are for the students. Headphones help make Zoom school tolerable, especially if there’s more than one student taking classes at home. And don’t forget: anyone attending work videoconference calls needs headphones, too.
I’m not going to recommend specific headsets (you can in comments, if you like) but parents told me to look for comfortable headphones that can be worn all day, ideally with handy mute buttons and volume controls on the unit — gaming headsets often work well, I was told. Some suggested noise-canceling headphones.
Here’s a few more items that made the list:
An external mouse
Can help with repetitive stress and hand injuries. Also, laptop pointers can be finicky, so it’s a good idea to have one around.
Bandwidth, and backup bandwidth
It’s worth investigating what kind of bandwidth upgrade your Internet provider is offering, though know that in real life many companies don’t deliver the speeds they promise (See this FCC test). And things can get worse during “rush hour,” as we saw with Zoom’s Monday-morning outage this week. Many consumers don’t even know how much bandwidth they are paying for. It’s a good idea to run a speed test on your Internet service periodically to know what kind of bandwidth you are really getting. Try the FCC’s speed test, or just Google “speed test.”
Also, always have backup. If you are a person who just can’t ever miss a meeting, consider buying a mobile hotspot so you have an alternate on-ramp to the Internet. At least make sure you can use your smartphone as a hotspot, and you know how. Mind you, this is usually an expensive way to attend Zoom meetings, so use it only as a last resort.
A new router — might help you focus
Speaking of bandwidth bottlenecks, you might get a lot of bang for your buck by replacing your wireless router. And that’s not all a good router can do for you. One reader recommended a Gryphon router, which makes it easy to limit Internet time and restrict usage to encourage school-only activities during school hours.
A new webcam
People tend to dislike the cameras and microphones that come with laptop computers; they are usually components. If possible, use a tablet, or even a smartphone, for sound and video, as these devices were built with multimedia in mind. Or, you could buy a decent stand-alone webcam. (Bill Malik suggested the Logitech C920 camera).
A password manager
Here’s a good tip: Now that kids and parents are online constantly, probably blending work and school data, and using a bunch of new applications, it’ll be tempting to re-use simple passwords. Don’t do that. A good password manager will make your life easier and safer. Google’s Chrome browser is integrating password management-like features now. That might help.
This is pretty low tech, but important. A student lying in bed might not quite feel like she or he is studying. A proper workspace is important, and one that’s ergonomically appropriate will help students focus and prevent injuries. Turns out, it’s not easy to find child-sized office chairs, I was warned — but one parent told me it was absolutely essential.
“A proper small adjustable chair has made all the difference for my son being able to participate in his online classes and sit at his desk (he is on the autism spectrum). Petite and teen office chairs are harder to find but really helpful,” she wrote.
About those laptops
It’s natural to consider buying a new laptop for your child, if it’s in the budget. If so, always check with school first. It’s worth getting what the school recommends, and trying to keep the configuration as similar as possible, so troubleshooting will be easier.
One parent suggested getting a second screen. Why?
“Something else to consider is having two things – an IPAD and a computer thing. Our classes would have a Zoom meeting and required the child to work on a document at the same time. So he would listen to the instructions on his IPAD and do the work on the computer. This stuff isn’t for folks on a budget, I’ll tell you that, or those without resources. Remote learning requires folks having resources. Just a thought.”
Finally, one reader convinced me that the real challenge of at-home learning isn’t technology — it’s space. He alerted me to the phrase “space divide.” In some families, each kid can work at their desk in their room. In others, the kids all crowd at the kitchen table or in the living room. That’s quite a disadvantage, one that our society will be dealing with long after this pandemic is gone. Nevertheless, if you can, make sure each student and worker has a door they can close when it’s time to focus.
“Doors and desks are key technologies for distance learning and work from home. A designated workspace rather than a multipurpose swingspace, because we are in this for the long haul. Unfortunately, the space divide is probably harder to overcome than the digital divide,” he wrote.